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How to Choose a Spouse


In this article we learn what goes on inside men and women, both psychologically and emotionally, when they are looking for a spouse.


This talk is not about the technique of finding a spouse. I will not be addressing the question, "Where do I find a good man?" or for men, the reverse question. I will rather be dealing with what goes on inside you psychologically and emotionally when you are looking for a spouse.

Many of you are already married, and some of you may even be grandparents. Do you have any role to play in the choice of a spouse for your children, or even for your grandchildren? In fact, the idea that people marry whomever they happen to fall in love with is a rather recent notion. It's probably a hundred years old. Before that, marriages were arranged. The grandparents and the parents had a great deal to say about the choosing of a spouse for their children. You may have seen the movie or play, Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, the father, picked out, at least for his oldest daughter, her husband. Then, for the next daughter, he OK'd the husband she had picked. The third daughter just decided to marry whom she wanted to marry. You can see the breakdown of the idea of arranged marriage.

One consequence of arranged marriages was that their divorce rate was very low. The reason for this was probably that, in selecting a spouse for their child, the parents considered issues other than those which young people today typically consider when they are selecting a spouse for themselves. Although I am not an advocate for a return to arranged marriages, I do want to see more of the rationality and thought that went into the selection of a spouse when marriages were arranged somehow preserved and brought into contemporary spouse selection.

How it's done today

Let's take a look at how young people pick a spouse today. Men and women grow up with what I call a "spousal ideal," an idea of "the perfect spouse." This ideal is formed largely by the communications and entertainment media. Consequently, men come to believe that the ideal spouse is supposed to be slim, pretty, and extremely appealing sexually. Every man also has ideas about what he is supposed to be that come from the media's notion of the ideal male. He is supposed to be very sexual, and have `rock hard abs'. (If you read men's magazines, those seem to be the only two things the editors think about: abdominal muscles and sex.)

Women are forming their "ideal spouse" image from the media in a similar way. They learn that men are supposed to be caring, love closeness, and be very gentle. They are also taught that women are supposed to be very slim, large-breasted, and sexually attractive. The idea of the man as being very warm and as loving to talk about his feelings at great length is especially prominent on soap operas. If you watch As The World Turns, or any other day time soap opera, you will see men who seem to have endless hours (even if they are emergency room surgeons) to talk about their feelings, and to agonize about whether or not they are in love. Real men don't talk that way. Real men don't think that way. But women are in danger of seeing the "ideal spouse" in this way, and to look for this kind of husband.

The woman's idea of how she should be as an "ideal spouse" is also significantly conditioned by the media, particularly by commercials. Take the L'Oreal or Panteen commercials. The message conveyed is that it is extremely important for women to have lovely hair. Another commercial message is that women should be thin. Much of the problem of Anorexia is related to the way the media portray the ideal woman.

The woman's viewpoint

I'm going to talk from the woman's point of view, but you need to know that everything I say has its own application to the man as well. What happens to the woman as she is growing up and looking for her ideal spouse? She has in the back of her head, formed by the media, the "ideal man." At one point in her life, she meets a man who, for some reason, triggers a correspondence between him and the picture she has of the "ideal man." This triggered correspondence produces a very pleasant feeling, a sense that the "ideal man" is standing right in front of her. This intense feeling begins to influence the woman's memory and her imagination so that it distorts how she sees the man. Instead of looking at the man and saying, "What is he? What is he like? What are his characteristics?" and then allowing her emotions to respond to that objective reality, she tends to focus on the intense feeling. This tends to distort what she sees in the man. She wants what she sees in him to feed the intense emotion.

As a result, she becomes enclosed in a "romantic bubble" that is largely divorced from reality. It is in this situation that a woman's family and friends say, "What on earth does she see in him?" She has seen something that triggered a correspondence between that man and her mental "ideal man." From then on, it's distortion. What she continues to see is not what is really there.

We use the expression "in love with love" to describe this situation. The woman wants to preserve the sweet feeling at all costs. Unconsciously she is willing to avoid looking at certain things about this man that might diminish the romantic feelings. She tends to look only at those things that will keep the romantic feeling going, and, preferably increase it. The desire to preserve and increase the romantic feeling is the screen through which everything about the man comes to her and is distorted.

Men do this, too, but the male emphasis tends to be more on the body. The woman's emphasis is on the total person, distorting it, "I want him to be close to me; I want him to be this romantic entity." The man tends to focus more exclusively on the body as an object of pleasure. He will talk about "closeness" when he is really thinking about sexuality. There can be a miscommunication going. The man is interested in sexual things. He speaks about this to the woman, but she hears it as, "He wants closeness. He wants me, the total person," when that isn't really the case. He is focusing on her as "a body that I may enjoy."

Let's go back to the woman. She is on an emotional high and she's clinging to it for all she's got because it is such a wonderful, addictive feeling. When you try to explain to her, "He doesn't have a job," or point out his other limitations, she says, "You don't understand how I feel. We're unique. We defy all the statistics. We're a one-of-a-kind couple. If you knew how I felt, you wouldn't say that." She is totally into her bubble of romance. She sees her relationship as so totally unique that no common sense can penetrate it. It is "the exception." She is unshakably convinced that her relationship with the young man is a unique, one-of-a-kind thing. As far as she is concerned, no one else has ever experienced or will ever experience it again. Nobody can really understand it except her and her beloved.

Subsequent marriage problems

Then they get married. Constant exposure on a daily basis to this man quickly leads to the bursting of the bubble. Now she realizes that this man has warts and pimples like everybody else. He is not like Adam in the state of Original innocence, but is this man with all his faults and weaknesses. The illusion that she was living under becomes dis-illusion with him. This is the origin of many marriage problems. if the only basis for the marriage is sexual attraction (which is usually the husband's big thing) and romantic feelings (which is usually the wife's big thing), then once they get married, sex and romance become "every day," and lose their luster. The marriage tends to fall apart. The couple tends to drift apart.

On the other hand, they may try desperately to keep the romantic and sexual excitement at fever pitch in their marriage, sometimes going to ridiculous lengths. There are some movements, some of them Catholic-sponsored, that put so much emphasis on keeping romance in marriage, that they tempt couples to avoid having children for at least five years. According to these people, "Having children kills romance." Couples who follow this advice will be arrested at the honeymoon level of their relationship and never progress beyond it. For five years, that couple will only know what it's like to be on a honeymoon. The woman will not know what the man is like when she is pregnant. The man will not know what his wife is like when she is pregnant either. He will not know what she is like as a nursing mother. She won't know what he's like as the father of an infant.

Back to the recently married couple. What happens when the romantic feelings don't seem to be there anymore? Sex isn't quite the exciting thing that it was before. At this point, they need to have something deeper than that, something which the Church calls love. This is not simply romantic love or sexual attraction. Rather it is the gift that one has made of oneself to another.

Loving vs. "using"

Here, you have to distinguish between loving and using. I say, "I love" a lot of things. I love my wife. I love my children. But I also love pizza. And I love wine. When I'm talking about loving pizza and loving wine, what do I mean? I mean that I love what the wine does for me. I love the wine because it makes me feel good. I love the wine because I'm getting something out of it. But when I no longer feel good, it's no longer doing anything for me, and I'm no longer getting anything out of it, then I throw it away. I don't want to keep the wine even when it's no longer making me feel good. It is fine to love an object or a thing that way. But when I love a person that way, we call that "using." It reduces the person to a thing, an object for my use. That is not the same thing as love.

Love of a person requires that your focus is not on what that person can do for you. Your focus is on what is good for that person, even if it inconveniences you. So a married person is making a gift of himself to his spouse, and is saying, "I give myself to you, and I want what is for your good, whether it's convenient for me or not." That is love. That is the third ingredient, in addition to sex and romance, that has to be there for the marriage to endure. If all the couple has is the sex, then, the husband is reducing his wife to a sex object. He is focusing on his wife as body, as "an object for my use," and that is the way he will relate to her. If all the couple has is romance, the wife is in danger of reducing her husband to what I call "a romance object." It is as though his wife is saying, "I want you to be there for my feeling of closeness. I don't really care if you're tired or sick or worried or anything. I just want you to be there for my closeness because I want to feel good. I want to feel somebody close to me. I don't really care about you. I just want that feeling."

Romantic using is the counterpart to the sexual using. One can be a sex object and one can be a romance object. Pornography feeds sex object thinking. Men look at pornography and get a distorted picture of women. Then they expect the distorted picture in real life with their wives. In a similar way, wives are in danger of looking at "romance pornography," which is the soap operas, which give a distorted picture of men. Men are not like that any more than women are like what you see in pornography. Then a wife will expect a real life husband to act like the actor in As The World Turns, who has endless amounts of time to talk about his feelings. In this way husband and wife are using, not loving, each other.

All the romantic love in the world will not turn into true love. You can up the ante all you want and get deeper and deeper romantic feelings, it doesn't at some point spill over into real love. More and more romance will never become real love. The real love comes from another source. It is not the feeling of closeness. It is not the sexual attraction. It is the gift of oneself that one has made to one's spouse. It is at a deeper level than feeling. It is at the level of free will and deliberate choice. "I'm concerned for what's good for you, and I'm willing to provide what's good for you, even if it inconveniences me." This is the essence of sacrifice.

The sacrifice of Christ

One place where this idea of sacrifice intersects is in our faith; it's the whole mystery of Christ. You can say to your wife "I love you," and to show you that I love you, I will have sexual intimacy with you. That can be an expression of love. But it can also be an expression of using. For example, you could force yourself on a tired, exhausted wife. You could be doing it because you want to feel good, and not because of anything to do with her. Or you could say, "I love you, and to show you that I love you, I'm throwing you a birthday party for you." That could be a way of showing love to your wife, but it could also be because you just like birthday cake. This will be a good way to have some, and you'll let your wife be the means through which you get your birthday cake.

But if you say, "I love you and so I will lay down my life for you," there's no other interpretation of that. You don't lay down your life for the glory of it, because you're not going to be around to enjoy the glory. That's the kind of love that Christ showed on the cross. He said, "Greater love than this no one has than to lay down his life for his friend." There's where you see what real love is. It's not a feeling. It's not eroticism. It's a gift of oneself to the uttermost. We see that especially when we gather for Mass. Christ gives himself utterly in the Eucharist. The Mass is a re-presentation of the sacrifice that He made on the cross. As Catholics, we can be energized and graced and rededicated to the true notion of love by our faith and the participation in the life of the Church.

Sacrifice means that I'm willing to accept the hard things when they come along. Prudence indicates that we don't go looking for hard things if we can avoid them. Why create a situation that's going to be painful if you don't have to? It's one thing to sacrificially offer up a sickness that you have. It's another thing to deliberately neglect your health so that you're going to get sick. It's the same way with marriage. Why go looking for a spouse that is going to be a great trial to you when you can look for a spouse that isn't going to be a great trial to you, and then take the trials that come in spite of that? What I'm getting at is, when a couple is dating, they need to be asking questions that indicate what kind of persons they are. I remember when my older daughter, the married one, came home after her first date, she sat down, and I said, "Well, tell me about this boy. What's he like?" She said, "Well, he has these cute little dimples." And I said, "No-no-no. Is he on drugs? Does he have a job? These are the things I want to know." You have to ask the right questions and take an objective look.

Specific Issues to be Considered

Religious difference

Let's talk about John and Mary. One of the things that is extremely helpful is having the same faith. What kind of religious faith does John have? It isn't only that he's Catholic and she's Catholic, but how Catholic? If Mary likes to say grace before meals and say the rosary as a family, and John goes to church at Easter and Christmas, there are two different levels there. There's going to be tension, similar to the situation of a Catholic and non-Catholic.

The division of labor

Another issue is this: What do you think about the division of labor that's going to go on in a family. One of the things I used to do when I worked for a diocese was to do marriage preparation for teenagers. Teenagers, when they are preparing for marriage, think they know everything, and that they have nothing to learn, so it was fun to show them that that wasn't necessarily the case. They would come into my office and sit on the couch. I would give them each a piece of paper and I would say, "Now I want you to sit far apart so you can't see what the other one is writing. I want you to answer these questions: who do you think should be the major breadwinner, the husband alone, the husband with the wife helping, fifty-fifty, the wife mostly with the husband helping, the wife alone? Also, who should cook the meals, who should wash the dishes, who should mow the lawn, who should pay the bills, who should change diapers?" Then they would write down their answers. Then I would say, "OK, let's compare."

Well, they had never talked about these things before, and suddenly you find that the young woman thinks that the husband should be the major breadwinner, and he thinks it should be fifty-fifty. They've never talked about that. Or, he thinks she should change the diapers, and she thinks he should change the diapers. The baby better watch out if the couple doesn't get their act together.

Division of time

Then I would give them another piece of paper and say, "I want you to make a pie, and divide the pie into sections. One section is going to stand for the amount of time you're going to spend together as a family with your children. The next piece is going to stand for how much time you're going to spend as a couple away from your children. And the next piece is going to stand for how much time you're going to spend alone, away from your spouse and children."

Then I would ask the young man what he put down. He would typically answer, "Five percent with the kids, five percent with my wife, and ninety percent alone." The girl would slowly turn and glare at him. Obviously, this couple had things to discuss. I would explain to them, "Here are some of the problems I see you folks having within a few years of marriage, based on these kinds of answers."

What was I doing? I was stimulating the couples to ask the kinds of questions and deal with the kinds of things that a courting couple should deal with. These are the kinds of things you talk about: what do you think about childcare, do you have any notion of how many children you'd like to have, as many as God sends us, only one, none, what's your idea of when children should come along, wait five years, start right away? Those are issues that couples need to talk about. What that does is get you away from the romantic and down to the nitty-gritty types of things. Built into that is the danger that, if we start talking about these things, we may disagree. We may get into an argument, and those romantic feelings will go away. But I want those romantic feelings. So I won't talk about those things. And this is the pull that couples have. They avoid talking about these things. You have to make them talk about these things. You have to make yourself talk about these things because you have to overcome your attraction to these romantic feelings that are so wonderful and feel so great.

Other things couples need to talk about are: what's your idea of a luxury and a necessity, is a dishwasher a luxury or a necessity, is a sit-down lawnmower a luxury or a necessity? You'd be surprised; people differ about these things. Things like that are good to talk about and get out in the open.

Also, togetherness and privacy. How much privacy do you want? What's your idea of togetherness?

Different use of language

One problem that people need to be aware of – popularized in the book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – is that men and women use language differently. Men use language pretty much to solve problems, to get things done. Women use language that way, too, but they also use language to express how they feel. A lot of times men don't understand this, and one of the tasks for men is to learn, at least a little bit, how to do this. (This is where I'm taking back a little of what I said about As The World Turns.) Men do have to learn to get into the feeling issue to a degree. It'll never be like As the World Turns, but it needs to be more than what it is when men are left to themselves.

For example, you have a husband who comes home from work. His wife, a full-time homemaker, is at home. She's crying. He says, "What's the matter?" She says, "I just got through talking with my mother on the phone. It was terrible! We have a rotten relationship. It has always been rotten. It's rotten now. It will always be rotten." The husband says, "Don't talk to her anymore." Or he says, "Tell her off " Or, "I'll tell her off."

The wife keeps crying. Finally, he says, "What do you expect me to do!" She says, "You don't understand!" She goes into the bedroom, throws herself on the bed, and continues crying.

What is going on there? The wife is on one level, and the husband is on another. The husband is giving solutions. He defines "My relationship with my mother is terrible" as, "This is a problem, and I want you to solve it." So the husband gives his solutions, these little one-liners. He doesn't like crying women, and he wants to stop her from crying. But the wife is on a different level. She is not looking for solutions. She's looking for some understanding. She wants something like, "Gee, honey, that's tough. It must be awful to be in a situation where you feel like your relationship with your mother has been awful and is bad." She wants him to put his arm around her and say, "I love you," and give her a kiss. That's what she's looking for from her husband. So you have these two different levels.

Now most men never think of that, but when it's pointed out to them, they say, "Oh, that's easy." They almost think like it's too easy because, it's hard to solve a problem, but it's easy just to be sympathetic. It almost seems like it's cheap. Anybody can say, "Gee, that's too bad." It's harder to say, "Let me solve your problem." But, a lot of times, it's that easier thing that the wife is looking for.

Women have a more fine-tuned way of perceiving reality, whereas men have a rougher, grosser look at reality, which is less refined. Women will pick up on things in an intuitive way which men will miss. When his wife tries to explain what she has picked up on, the man will think that what she is saying is illogical. A couple can be driving home after having visited another couple, and the wife will turn to her husband and say, "Boy, is he mad at her!" The husband will say, "What are you talking about?" She will say, "Couldn't you tell?" The husband will say, "But what makes you say that?" The wife, "It's obvious." The wife can't break it down into logical steps of first this, then this, and therefore this, because she's at such a minute level of observation that no further subdivision can be made. So "It was obvious. I just know." This can be nerve-wracking to a husband who is used to cause and effect thinking. Here men can discount contributions that their wives make to situations because they don't understand this intuitive way of grasping reality.

Women like to be told, "I love you. I'm mad about you." Men don't do this. This is an expression of a feeling. Left to themselves, men will only express a feeling such as, "I don't like that. Do it differently." For men, language is for problem solving. So men tend to think, "if everything is going fine, and there's no problem, I don't say anything. I only talk if there's a problem. Then I tell you: Do it this way. That's wrong." We're solving problems. So, if everything is going well with you and your wife, there's nothing to say to her, because there's no problem.

That's the man's side. But the woman's side is, "I want to hear this 'I love you'." But the woman's dilemma is that she wants to hear this from her husband as something freely given by him. So she hints. She gets angry at something else, but not that. She hopes he will get the hint. If she says to him, "You never tell me that you love me," he'll say, "All right, I love you." Then she'll say, "But I had to ask."

It's good to keep all this in the back of your head when you are courting. Men and women speak two different languages. They are two ways of being human, and you have to bridge the gap. A man can't talk to a woman as he does to another man. It won't work. He has to learn a new way of talking, how to bring up these feelings and express them in a way that he does not normally do.

Now there's a trick there that women have to be careful of. Remember, men are problem-solvers. When a man is courting a woman, his problem is this: "I want to get this woman to marry me." How does he solve the problem? Women like you to say, "I love you" and to be warm and affectionate. I will say, "I love you" and be warm and affectionate. Then we will get married. I have solved my problem. I don't need to say that anymore. The wife is left wondering what happened. You can have problems later on in the marriage, when the husband figures that he's achieved his goal, and doesn't have to express feelings anymore.

Who should pursue whom?

A related issue is also just below the surface: the woman-as-aggressor. Most women really want to be the princess in the tower. They want the young man to go out and slay the dragon and rescue them. That's the fairy tale that we all grow up with, and it's deeply embedded in our culture. When a woman starts chasing after a man, the man is disoriented. He thinks he's chasing after her, and it turns out, she's coming at him. What happens is that he turns around and runs the other way. A man can become disoriented and frightened. It's not what he's expecting. He's expecting her to run away. He's supposed to catch her. If she's running toward you, what do you do? It kills the game.

But then there's the whole idea of slaying the dragon. This is really about courage. The man has to have the courage to pursue a woman, to call her up and ask her for the date. What if she says no? Well, you have to do it anyway. Take courage. It won't kill you. Slay the dragon. But if women are always calling him on the phone, he never gets a chance to exercise his courage, so it just sort of sits there in an infantile, undeveloped stage because he never had to exercise it and make it grow. And he figures, "I don't have to know what it's like to put myself out and pursue a woman. I don't have to figure out what it's like to call a girl up and ask her for a date and worry that she's going to say `no'. They call me!"

At another level, women want to be pursued. When they do the pursuing, it can be because they are afraid that they won't be pursued otherwise. In other words, "If I run away, he'll just let me run, and I'll get lost, so I've got to turn around and run toward him. Otherwise, it's not going to happen." There's a certain lack of self-confidence on her part. Even though she appears so "assertive," she is really lacking in self-confidence. She will also be feeling resentful toward him because she has to do the chasing. "You should be chasing me. I shouldn't have to chase you. And yet, you make me chase you! I had to propose to you. I had to run after you. And I never got a chance to get wooed and won. I had to do all the work, and I'm mad. And you'll pay for it later!" These issues are usually just below the surface, but sometimes they come up to the surface and have to be dealt with. Women chasing men is a negative phenomenon. It's a good thing that women are put on a pedestal. It's a good thing that the man pursues the woman. Deep down inside, women want this. Any "woman's movement" that attempts to bring women down to the ordinary level is a diminishment.

Your future spouse's family

Some other things to pay attention to are predictors, indicating what you may be in for with this particular person. Mary should want to know: what is John's father like, how does he treat his wife, what's their relationship like, how does John treat his mother, how does he treat his father, how does he get along with his brothers and sisters? You're going to find a lot there. People tend to have two personalities. We have our in-house personality and our public personality. The in-house personality is how I treat my brothers and sisters and my mother and father. My public personality is how I treat my friends and my teachers or bosses. Those of you who have children must have had the experience of going to school and having the teacher tell you what a wonderful child you have and how obedient this boy is. You're thinking, "This is our son that they're talking about?" He's totally different at home. I go to the Y regularly to work out, and a lot of the young fathers take their young children there to go swimming. One time I was in the locker room, rounding a corner, and I could hear this father and his little two-year-old daughter exchanging words. She was saying, "No! I won't! I don't want to!" Then I rounded the corner. Her whole demeanor changed. She gave me a big smile and said, "Hi!" By looking at John's in-house personality with his family, you're getting a foretaste of what it's going to be like with you. Now he's relating to you through his public personality. But once you get married, you will move into the family, and he will relate to you through his in-house personality. You will be treated more like the other family members are.

Also, "like father, like son." John, for better or for worse, learned how to be a man from his father. Much of this is unconscious: the way he talks, his gestures. Also, he will have learned from his father how to treat women, and particularly, how to treat his wife. If you don't like the way John's father treats his mother, you'd better look at John twice, and make sure that John doesn't like it either. Even then, you may find him becoming more like his father after you marry him than you thought he would. We've all had the experience of saying, "I never thought I would say this or do this, but I'm acting just like my father!" Or, "I never thought I would yell at my kids like this, but I'm doing it, just like my mother!" You need to be aware of this. But you're not going to want to be aware of it if you decide, "Ah, but that's going to spoil the romantic feelings. That's going to ruin our weekend if we talk about that."

You also want to look at how John is with little babies, with children. That will give you some indication. Sometimes there can be dramatic changes there, though. You can have a man who shows little interest in children until it's his child, and then it's quite different. But, still, to see a man who is indifferent to infants, indifferent to children, who talks to them as though they were "little adults" instead of as though they were little children – that should give you pause. Again, I'm talking from Mary's point of view, but the same applies in reverse for John as to what he should be looking for in Mary.

Regarding "two families marrying each other," that is important for the couple to keep in mind. When you marry you get a whole new family. You have to take that into account when you are courting because, to marry someone, and then just want that person only, and to try to tear him free from his family of origin isn't going to work.

Drug history & work record

You want to look at an alcohol and drug record. Is this guy on drugs? That's very important. When a teenager starts to abuse alcohol his psychological development usually stops right at the time he starts abusing alcohol. So if he starts using alcohol at fourteen, and particularly if he uses it when he's in rough situations – he has to call a girl up for a date, he has to meet a girl's father, he has to apply for a job, when he's angry, or something like that – then he stops developing right there. If you meet up with this guy at twenty-four, and he's still drinking like that, you're basically dealing with a fourteen- year-old who has all the emotional and developmental limitations of a fourteen-year-old. Only now he's twenty-four and has a ten year history of alcohol abuse.

You'd want to look at his employment record. Is he on welfare? Is he working? Is he living off mom and dad while he criticizes them up and down? Is he capable of meaningful employment? How does he manage money? Is he credit-carded out to the max? Does he know how to budget? Is his idea of budgeting the same as your idea of budgeting? (That goes back to what's a necessity and what's a luxury.)

Tactical issues

There are also some tactical issues. Where do you go to look for a spouse? Don't go to bars. Be careful about dating services. Basically, go to places where the kind of men or women are that you would be interested in dating. Obviously, some kind of Catholic singles group would make sense. Possibly, volunteering in some kind of an activity such as pro-life work would be another way. If you're a female university student, take some engineering courses where there's a lot of men. You have to put yourself in the situation where the kind of men you want to be with are. A bar is not the place to do that, nor is a dating service.

There is nothing wrong with the idea of a dating service as such. But in our day and age, the actual results are apt to be poor. One can conceive of other types of dating services that are different. If you had a computerized thing – the danger of that is that you have total strangers (or a machine) bringing two people together, based on a paragraph that each person has cooked up and a video that they did. It multiplies the possibility of problems. You'd have to weigh it. It's not an absolute evil, but it is dangerous.

This gets us back to the arranged marriage. It's a good thing to get some help from other people. Mary's friends can keep an eye out for men who might be suitable for her, and bring them together in a discreet way. Choosing a spouse isn't something you do all by yourself. There needs to be a Catholic environment where other people, clergy, your family, your friends, are all cooperating in a discreet way to help with this because it's difficult and can't always be done alone.

There are features of the arranged marriage that are good. They introduce the notions of rationality, common sense, the deeper levels, and they don't allow the sexual attraction and romance to overpower those more important issues. We cannot go back to arranged marriages, but we can reintroduce some of the features of it. We can raise our children to expect us to have a lot of input, suggestions, advice, that they ought to respectfully listen to, and then let them make a decision about whom they are going to marry.

Premarital sex & "living together"

From my point of view, apart from faith and just speaking as a psychologist, I think premarital sex is a poor idea. A comprehensive review of recent research by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead suggests that living together is not a good way to prepare for marriage or to avoid divorce. Couples who live together before marriage are more likely to break up than those who don't.

One problem with premarital sex that I see, especially for women, is that women need to see sex as something permanent, as something involving the whole person, as something that isn't just a one-night-stand kind of thing or just purely pleasure. So when a woman agrees to start having sex with a boy friend, she starts building up the notion in her mind that it's like they're already married. She may try to get certain verbal protestations of loyalty on the part of the man before she sleeps with him or after she has started to sleep with him. Because she is into the view of "it's like we're already married", when she then observes in the courtship certain things which are real red flags, like "when he gets drunk, he beats me up," or "he isn't faithful to me," it's harder for her to say, "Hey, forget it!" and leave because "it's like we're married," and she feels like she has to honor the logic of that by staying with this man. And this clouds over the fact that she's really heading for a disaster.

Then, too, if pregnancy occurs, and the couple marries, there's always the question of why they married. Ugly things are said like, "I had to marry you" or "You only married me because I was pregnant" that don't bode well for marital harmony.

Living together, speaking again strictly from a psychologist's point of view, is a poor idea. Again, what little literature there is on that tends to suggest that couples that live together divorce at a higher rate than couples who don't. The so-called "wisdom" of living together is "try it out." It reduces the whole relationship to the level of purchasing a dishwasher. Take it home, try it out, see if you like it, and then you'll buy it. If you don't like it, you can just bring it back. But that brings in the whole notion of using people rather than loving them.

Another problem with living together is, "What exactly are we doing when we're living together?" I once counseled a married couple. When I took a history, it turns out that, before they were married, they lived together. During that period, on a weekend the wife-to-be went to visit her mother. The husband-to-be went out with another woman. The wife-to-be found out about it and was furious. They sort of made up, but there were a lot of hard feelings. They got married. Now the husband was thinking, "Well I went out on her before we were married, but now we're married, and I'm not going to do that anymore." And so he didn't. The wife was thinking, "It's like we were married when we were living together. If he would do it then, he'd do it now." So she was always suspicious that he was doing what he did when they were living together. She kept on nagging him so much about the affair which he was, in fact, not having, that finally he thought, "If I'm going to have all the grief of having an affair, I might as well have some of the fun of having an affair," and so he did, and he got caught, and they came to my office.

My family and I visited a married couple, and the husband was telling me how he and his wife had lived together for years before they got married and that they had a written contract. And I said, "What would you have done if she had gotten breast cancer?" He just looked at me and said, "I never thought of that." There again, there is no "in sickness and in health" when you live together. That only comes with marriage. This is one reason why living together before marriage is a poor idea. There are no clear boundaries. You don't know what's expected. It gives rise to all kinds of misunderstandings. Further, people tend to be on their best behavior because they know they're not married. They're walking on eggshells a little bit. They don't really let it all hang out until they get married. So it isn't true that you're going to find out what this person is really like.

Contraception and marriage counseling

I have been asked how I deal with the contraception issue in marriage counseling. In the case of a couple who are using contraception by mutual agreement, and who have hardly heard the Church's teaching, I could not raise the issue in counseling because the difficulties that contraception would create would be too subtle and hard to pinpoint. The couple wouldn't see it. If I said, "This is making you less sensitive to each other," they would say, "No it isn't."

But if the husband and wife disagree about contraception, I would be more verbal and have more to say. The effect of contraception is big but has a certain subtlety to it. Couples can live in apparent harmony while practicing contraception. Although you may not see harmful effects from it, they are there under the surface. I think that unconsciously the wife is often feeling used. And both spouses have a sense of a certain diminishment in their sexual life, which they can't quite put their finger on. It's so subtle that they don't even bother to tell you about it.

Contraception is usually considered because of the husband's refusal to control himself. I gave a talk to a group of women for an entire day on the Church's teaching on this issue. I talked about the history of the Church's teaching, NFP, and about all the different contraceptive methods and their limitations. The women kept raising objections. Finally, one of the women came to the bottom line: "My husband would never stand for this." She said this in a way that suggested, "And I don't even dare to get angry about it." Again, it's below the surface. I think this woman spoke for the group. They couldn't even admit that they were annoyed at their husbands' refusal to respect the wife's body.

I want to close by saying that one of the most important preparations for marriage and for choosing a spouse is to pray about it. Bring this before God daily and ask Him to bless that intention and send you a spouse with whom you can live until death. One special patron for that is St. Joseph, the spouse of the Blessed Mother.



Fightlin, Marshall "How to Choose a Spouse." (St. Louis, MO: The Central Bureau, CCVA, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

To order "How to Choose a Spouse" contact The Central Bureau, Catholic Central Verein of America, 3835 Westminster Place ,St Louis MO 63I08 - ISBN I-887567-I5-I

The Author

Marshall Fightlin is an experienced licensed psychologist specializing in personal, marriage or family problems. He offers a psychological consultation service by telephone. Visit his web site here. Contact him at: 866-636-9600.

Copyright © 1999 Marshall Fightlin
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